Women's Legal Rights in Ancient Egypt

by Janet H. Johnson

rom our earliest preserved records in the Old Kingdom on, the formal legal status of Egyptian women (whether unmarried, married, divorced or widowed) was nearly identical with that of Egyptian men. Differences in social status between individuals are evident in almost all products of this ancient culture: its art, its texts, its archaeological record. In the textual record, men were distinguished by the type of job they held, and from which they derived status, "clout," and income. But most women did not hold jobs outside the home and consequently were usually referred to by more generic titles such as "mistress of the house" or "citizeness." Women were also frequently identified by giving the name and titles of their husband or father, from whom, presumably, they derived their social status. Thus the New Kingdom literary text entitled "The Instructions of (a man named) Any" state, "A woman is asked about her husband, a man is asked about his rank."

Funerary statuettes of a husband and wife from the tomb of Nykauinpu from Giza (Dynasty 5, ca. 2477 B.C.).

But in the legal arena both women and men could act on their own and were responsible for their own actions. This is in sharp contrast with some other ancient societies, e.g., ancient Greece, where women did not have their own legal identity, were not allowed to own (real) property and, in order to participate in the legal system, always had to work through a male, usually their closest male relative (father, brother, husband, son) who was called their "lord." Egyptian women were able to acquire, to own, and to dispose of property (both real and personal) in their own name. They could enter into contracts in their own name; they could initiate civil court cases and could, likewise, be sued; they could serve as witnesses in court cases; they could serve on juries; and they could witness legal documents. That women very rarely did serve on juries or as witnesses to legal documents is a result of social factors, not legal ones.

The great disparity between the social and legal status of women can be observed in both documentary and literary materials. For instance, in the literary text entitled "The Instructions of the (Vizier) Ptahhotep," preserved in Middle Kingdom and later copies, a man's wife is seen basically as a dependent, of whom it behooves him to take good, and loving, care:

When you prosper and found your house and love your wife with ardor, fill her belly, clothe her back; ointment soothes her body. Gladden her heart as long as you live; she is a fertile field for her lord.
But next comes a jarring statement,
Do not contend with her in court. Keep her from power, restrain her--her eye is her storm when she gazes. Thus will you make her stay in your house.
This reference to contending with one's wife in court clearly indicates that women had legal rights and were willing to fight for them. This distinction between the legal status of women in ancient Egypt and their public or social status is of major importance in understanding how the Egyptian system actually worked.

Egyptian civil law

The Egyptian word which most corresponds to our word "law" (of which a possible definition is: a system of rights, i.e., individual claims, which are enforced by the "state" if they conform to certain conditions) is hp, which can also connote custom, order, justice, or right, according to its usage. In ancient Egypt all law was given from above; there was no "legislature" which would draft "legislation." In a New Kingdom court case, a man cites the "law of Pharaoh" as precedent and in another, when citing the law a man says, "The King said, . . . " Thus, "law" is the king's word (wd-nswt).

Contracts were written copies of oral agreements in which Party A spoke to Party B in the presence of witnesses and a (professional) scribe who copied down (and put into "legalese") the words of Party A. Although only Party A spoke, Party B had the right to accept or refuse the contract, thus making these agreements bilateral and binding on both parties. Copies of contracts concerning real property were filed in the local records office, under the ultimate jurisdiction of the vizier. These public records made it possible for the state to know who was responsible for paying taxes on the land; the documents were also available for consultation in any subsequent lawsuit.

Civil lawsuits involved an oral petition to the court by a private individual. The best-known example of a local court is the one at Deir el-Medina, the New Kingdom village on the west bank of the Nile at modern Luxor, ancient Thebes, inhabited by the workmen who carved and decorated the royal tombs in the Valley of the Kings. This court was composed of local people, usually the relatively important local citizens including the scribes and crew chiefs, but also some simple workmen and, even more rarely, women. Egyptian judges based their decisions on traditions and precedent and kept copies of their decisions.

The earliest contracts of which we have record are imyt pr documents, literally "that which is in the house." These contracts frequently have been identified as "wills," but a better translation is "(land) transfer document." They were used to transfer property to someone other than the person(s) who would inherit the property if the owner died intestate (i.e., without a will). These documents were sealed and filed or recorded in a central government office.

There is a fair amount of Old Kingdom evidence for women in the economy or "public sphere," including women shown as merchants in market scenes and women acting as priestesses, especially for the goddess Hathor. Much of the New Kingdom evidence for the economic role of women comes from documents reflecting their dealings with both men and women. That the government was also perfectly willing to deal with women is indicated by Papyrus Wilbour, a long text recording "taxes" due on farmland; each piece of land is identified by owner and (if different) by the person working the land. Of the 2,110 parcels of land for which the name of the owner is preserved, women are listed as owners of 228, just over 10 percent; the land frequently is described as being worked by their children. However these women originally acquired this land, what is significant is that they hold title to the land and bear responsibility for assessments due.


It should be noted that the Egyptians not only had a concept of private property, they also developed a concept of "joint property," property acquired by a married couple during their marriage. The husband had use of the joint property, meaning he could dispose of joint property without his wife's permission. But if a husband sold or otherwise disposed of a piece of joint property (or of any of his wife's property which she brought with her to the marriage), he was legally liable to provide his wife with something of equal value. That it is the husband who has use of joint property reflects the social fact that men normally participated in the public sphere, whereas women did not.

The legal independence and identity of Egyptian women is reflected not only in the fact that they could deal with property on the same terms that men did and that they could make the appropriate contracts in their own names, but also in the fact that they themselves were held accountable for economic transactions and contracts into which they had entered.

In one case, a woman named Iry-nefret was charged with illegally using silver and a tomb belonging to a woman named Bak-Mut to help pay for the purchase of a servant-girl. Iry-nefret was brought to court and told in her own words how she acquired the girl, listing all the items which she gave the merchant as price for the girl and identifying the individuals from whom she bought some of the items used in this purchase. She had to swear an oath before the judges in the names of the god Amon and the Ruler. The judges then had the complainant produce witnesses (three men and three women) who would attest that she had used stolen property to purchase the girl. The end of the papyrus recording the court case is lost, but it is clear that the woman Iry-nefret acted on her own in purchasing the servant-girl and was held solely liable for her actions while the testimony of both women and men was held by the judges to be equally admissible.

Marriage and family law

Marriage in ancient Egypt was a totally private affair in which the state took no interest and of which the state kept no record. There is no evidence for any legal or religious ceremony establishing the marriage, although there was probably a party. The preserved portion of the first Late Period story of Setne Khaemwast tells how Ahure and Na-nefer-ka-Ptah fell in love and wanted to marry. Their parents agreed, so Ahure was taken to Na-nefer-ka-Ptah's house, people (especially the father of the bride) gave presents, there was a big party, the two slept together, and then they lived together and had a child. But basically marriage was an agreement by two people, and their families, that they would live together (hms irm), establish a household (grg pr), and have a family. The same vocabulary was used for both women and men. Although most marriages may have been arranged at the desire of the husband and parents of the bride, there is also a repeated literary image of a girl persuading her father to let her marry the man whom she wishes, rather than the father's choice.

Modern scholars have analyzed the role of women in many societies, ancient to modern, as that of a commodity, sold by the father and bought by the husband. Some Egyptian evidence could suggest that this was or had been true in Egypt, as well. For instance, a man might give a gift to his prospective father-in-law, which could be interpreted as "buying" the man's daughter as wife. But the gift which a man might give to his future father-in-law has also been analyzed as serving to break the bonds of the woman with her biological family, so that the new couple could establish their own family as the center of their life and loyalty.

Although women were legally the equals of men, and could deal with property on equal terms with men, the social and public role of women was vastly different from that of men. Although there are examples where the wife of a couple is stronger or more important than the husband (by family, fortune, or personality), most Egyptians tended to marry a person from their own social class; thus, a woman frequently would marry a man in the same or similar profession as her father and brother(s). This resulted not from formal laws or restrictions but simply, presumably, from the fact that this was the group of people with whom one had the most contact and with whom one was most comfortable.

Annuity contracts

Although women sometimes helped their husbands with their jobs (whether the equivalent of the modern "mom and pop store" or the wife filling in for her husband when the husband was "on the road") and although women had ways of acquiring some wealth through their own initiative (especially through textile production), they needed some assurance that the father of their children would provide for their (hers and their children's) material future. Thus there developed what have been called "marriage contracts," although such documents are purely economic and embody no social expectations at all.

These documents were not designed to legitimize the marriage--they were not a prerequisite for marriage nor did they have to be contracted at the time of the union since some refer to children who are already born to the couple. They were not intended to establish the social/personal rights and responsibilities of either party toward the other, as did both the Greek and Aramaic Jewish marriage contracts preserved from first millennium Egypt.

Such concepts certainly existed; they are presented in wisdom literature from the Old Kingdom on, and in a New Kingdom letter a man spells out what he considered the obligations of a man to his wife: fidelity, (loving) attention, the responsibility to provide well for her and their children, to take care of her medically, to take pride in her, and not to treat her as a master treats a servant.

The so-called "marriage contracts" concern themselves only with economic matters--the annual responsibility of the husband to feed and clothe the wife (and their children) and the right of their children to inherit his wealth--and are better called annuity contracts. As such, they were extremely advantageous to the wife and one may assume that the woman and her family exerted as much pressure as they could to ensure that the husband made such a contract. Because Egyptian women were full participants in the legal system, not chattel and not dependent on a man to handle their legal concerns for them, such contracts were made by the husband directly with the wife, not her father or any other man on her behalf. This is in sharp contrast with other ancient "marriage documents," whether these documents were purely economic or also embedded social concerns.

In an annuity contract found in the Ptolemaic "Family Archive from Siut" (a town in Middle Egypt), the man addresses the woman. He lists the value of all the expensive property that she brought with her to the marriage, he notes that he will give her an amount of money as a "bridal gift," and he declares that, if they divorce (and whether the divorce was instigated by him or by her), he must give her money equivalent to the full value of everything which he had mentioned; if he doesn't give her all the money, then he must (continue to) feed and clothe her (the amounts of grain, oil, and money for clothing which he must provide every month are spelled out) until he does give her the full amount in silver. If he defaults on his payments, she remains legally entitled to any and all arrears. By implication, if they divorce, then once he has paid her the full amount of silver included in the contract, she returns the contract to him and all obligations are canceled.

Note that although the wife "owned" the property, the husband had use of it. Thus, in case of divorce, the husband had to repay the value, not return the specific items. It has been suggested that the "bridal gift" (in this case 20 pieces of silver), and similarly the earlier fine imposed on a husband who divorces his wife, was intended as a deterrent to the man's divorcing his wife. In either case, the man would have had to actually hand the money over to the woman only at the time of divorce. The contract is confirmed by the husband's father: since the husband would not actually come into ownership of the property to be inherited from his father until his father's death, the father must confirm that he approves of his son's marriage and will not use this marriage as an excuse to disown his son (thereby leaving the son's new wife high and dry).


Divorce and remarriage were common in Egypt at all periods and contention between siblings and half-siblings, frequent. To stress the close nature of siblings, both literary and documentary sources frequently specify that they share both mother and father. To resolve potential disputes before they might arise, the somewhat practical or pragmatic expediency was chosen of making it incumbent on the father to secure the permission of his older children, who stood to lose part of their inheritance. Since men, even full grown men, remained economically dependent on their parents, and especially their fathers, until the parents died, it would also be in the best interests of the son to agree to his father's remarriage (and not risk rupture and complete disinheritance). Thus, everybody's wants or needs were satisfied by getting everyone to agree to what at least some people wanted. This pattern fits with the observation that agreement and resolution of conflict, rather than "abstract justice," often seem to have been the aim of Egyptian court decisions.

Divorce and remarriage seem to have been relatively easy and relatively common. There is little convincing evidence for polygamy, except by the king, but extensive evidence for "serial monogamy." Either party could divorce a spouse on any grounds or, basically, without grounds, without any interest or record on the part of the state. The vocabulary for divorce, like that for marriage, reflected the fact that marriage was, basically, living together; a man "left, abandoned" a woman; a woman "went (away from)" or "left, abandoned" a man.

Although neither party had to provide legal (or social, moral or ethical) grounds for divorce, the economic responsibilities spelled out in the annuity contracts made this a serious step. Thus, normally a married woman was supported by her husband for as long as they remained married and his property was entailed for their children. Since even remarriage after the death of a first wife could lead to wrangling over property and inheritance rights, a bitter divorce and remarriage could lead to major legal contests.

If a man divorced his wife, he had to return her dowry (if she had brought one) and pay her a fine; if she divorced him, there was no fine. A spouse divorced for fault (including adultery) forfeited his or her share of the couple's joint property. After divorce, both were free to remarry. But it seems clear that, until the husband has returned his wife's dowry and paid her the fine, or until she has accepted it, the husband remained liable for supporting her, even if they were no longer living together. Some (ex-)husbands, then as now, tried to avoid supporting their (ex-)wives, and we have several references to a woman's biological family stepping in to support or assist her when her husband can't or won't.

The ancient Egyptian concept of adultery consisted of a married person having sex with someone other than that person's spouse. It was just as "wrong" for a man to commit adultery as for a woman. The Egyptian system was family centered, and the terminology for marriage and divorce was the same for both sexes; adultery was defined in family terms and condemned for both men and women, and sex by unmarried individuals seems not to have been a major concern.

This brief overview on women's rights, which has necessarily omitted many questions and much detail, only touches upon the complexities of this ancient culture, where women's remarkable legal equality and ability to own and dispose of property must be seen in the light of the social world in which they lived--a world dominated, at least in the range of records which have been preserved for us, by men and men's concerns.

Relevant links:

The Oriental Institute

ABOUT THE AUTHOR | Janet H. Johnson

Janet H. Johnson, professor of Egyptology in the Oriental Institute and department of Near Eastern languages and civilizations at the University of Chicago, is also a member of the university committees on the ancient Mediterranean world, Jewish studies, and gender studies. Her main interests include Egyptian language and Egypt in the "Late Period" (1st millennium B.C.). Publications include the 3rd edition (online) of her teaching grammar of Demotic, Thus Wrote 'Onchsheshonqy, as well as numerous articles and books. She is the director of the Chicago Demotic Dictionary Project and director of the Egyptian Reading Book Project.

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